16 January 2011

Guest Author: Gillian Bagwell

This week on Unusual Historicals we're welcoming Berkley author Gillian Bagwell as she celebrates the release of her historical fiction debut, THE DARLING STRUMPET, set in Restoration Era England. Based on the life of Nell Gwynn, THE DARLING STRUMPET tells the story of her rise from the streets to become one of London's most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of King Charles II. Check out below how you can win a copy!

From London's slums to its bawdy playhouses, THE DARLING STRUMPET transports the reader to the tumultuous world of seventeenth-century England, charting the meteoric rise of the dazzling Nell Gwynn, who captivates the heart of King Charles II-and becomes one of the century's most famous courtesans.

Witty and beautiful, Nell was born into poverty but is drawn into the enthralling world of the theater, where her saucy humor and sensuous charm earn her a place in the King's Company. As one of the first actresses in the newly-opened playhouses, she catapults to fame, winning the affection of legions of fans--and the heart of the most powerful man in all of England, the King himself. Surrendering herself to Charles, Nell will be forced to maneuver the ruthless and shifting allegiances of the royal court--and discover a world of decadence and passion she never imagined possible.

"Richly engaging portrait of the life and times of one of history's most appealing characters!" ~ Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling Outlander series

"Hard to resist this sort of seduction--a Nell Gwynn who pleasures the crowds upon the stages of London and the noblest men of England in their bedrooms. A vivid portrait of an age that makes our own seem prudish, told with verve, humour, pathos...and not a little eroticism." ~ C.C. Humphreys, actor and author of Jack Absolute


Are any of the houses where Nell lived or the theatres where she performed still there?

Sadly, none of her haunts in London are still standing, but the layout of the streets hasn't changed significantly in much of central London, and it is possible to figure out more or less where some of the old places were. No one knows exactly where she was born, but it was likely in what was then the maze of slums around Covent Garden, and her early life didn't take her far from there.

Lewkenor's Lane, the site of Madam Ross's brothel, is now Macklin Street (above), just off the north end of Drury Lane. The Cat & Fiddle and Cock & Pie taverns and inns were near the south end of Drury Lane. The Maypole in the Strand stood just about in front of the church of St. Mary Le Strand (left), which is still there, and Maypole Alley, which led to Drury Lane, would have passed through approximately the location of Bush House, which used to house the BBC and still houses some parts of it, I believe. Of course the present Theatre Royal in Drury Lane is in the same spot as the theatre Nell acted in but it's about the third building on the site.

Before Nell began acting, the King's Company and Duke's Company were both performing in converted tennis courts just off Lincoln's Inn Fields. The location of the Duke's Company theatre is at the back of what is now the Royal College of Surgeons, in a space that, at least as of the summer of 2008, was let to the London School of Economics. In fact, oddly, the LSE was occupying several places that were the sites of old theatres. Nell had a house in Newman's Row, in the northeast corner of Lincoln's Inn Fields. The passage is still there, and the square not too much changed from her days, though the house is gone.

There is a blue plaque historical market on the house at 79 Pall Mall, which is where Nell lived from about 1671 to the end of her life, but that, too, is a different building. The Banqueting House is all that remains of Whitehall Palace, but Nell certainly knew that building. By comparing old maps with contemporary maps and the layout of the ground, I've come to the conclusion that Charles II's bedroom, the site of so much intrigue, was probably right about at the location of the statue that stands behind the Ministry of Defense, just off the river.

There's a building in Windsor that is allegedly where Nell stayed sometimes, and, very incongruously, it now houses a Chinese restaurant. Burford House, which Charles gave her, is still on the grounds of Windsor Castle, but has been much altered from her time.

How many of the characters in your book are real and how many are imaginary?

Most of the major characters and quite a lot of the minor ones are real people that Nell would have known. All the actors that she watches, learns from, and plays with are based on real actors, and the stage roles they play in the book are mostly the roles those actors actually performed. Orange Moll, who had the concession to sell oranges and sweetmeats in the theatre, is real, as is the rope dancer Jacob Hall, who really did become the lover of the Duchess of Castlemaine for a while. The old sailor Dicky One-Shank, who works as a stagehand, is fictitious, but there were sailors who worked in theatres--both jobs required some of the same knowledge of rigging, hauling canvas, and so on--and Nell surely knew some of them.

How did you recreate Nell's performances, or even know what plays she acted in?

Thanks to Samuel Pepys's diary, we have some glimpses into events at the playhouse, and Nell's performances. She didn't like serious roles, and she wasn't very good in them. More than once Pepys complains about her ruining a show with her performance. But he couldn't get enough of her when she was in a comic role, and the playwrights took advantage of that and wrote great parts for her, including many that had her playing opposite her lover Charles Hart. They became the Myrna Loy and William Powell of the 1660s, playing witty bantering couples who spar and jab and have a lot of humor and sexual chemistry.

Your second book, THE SEPTEMBER QUEEN, coming next November, also involves Charles II, but at a much earlier period of his life. How did that come about?

In the course of researching THE DARLING STRUMPET, I learned about Charles's escape after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651, and how a girl named Jane Lane risked her life to help him by disguising him as her servant and riding behind him on horseback so he could get to the coast where he could find a boat that would take him to safety in France. It was an enormously important and formative period for Charles, and he told the story to anyone who would listen for the rest of his life.

I couldn't get into much depth about these events without slowing the story down, and with regret, I just had Charles say, "That's a story for another time." When my agent asked what I was going to write next, and I was casting around for ideas, I remembered Jane Lane. My agent loved the idea too, and we were both astonished and delighted to discover that apparently no one had ever written a novel about the really unbelievable story of her journey with Charles.


Thanks so much for stopping by today, Gillian, and best of luck with your debut! Readers, if you'd like the chance to win a copy of THE DARLING STRUMPET, answer this: What is it about the Cinderella/commoner-to-royalty idea that remains so timeless in history, legend and romance? Is it a trope you enjoy? I'll draw a winner at random next Sunday. Void where prohibited. Best of luck!